After Alice in Wonderland

by Peter

I discovered something important after Alice in Wonderland.  It is this: Movie-watching-wise, I am an old fart.  I have not seen a new movie recently but I’ve commented on how unnecessarily fast-paced and unattractively chock-full-plotted it was.  (With the exception of Babies.  Babies allowed my apparently dawdling narrative clock to tic away at. its. own.. sweet… rate.)  I finally noticed my trend after watching Alice, and my noticing it as a trend makes me suspicious whether I’ve applied it appropriately to any given movie.  Like this one.  But it was still there, and in force.  “Too many things not well enough connected happening too quickly only keeping my energy and attention peeled by means of cheap spectacle much like this sentence does!” my soul cried, in an effort toward representation.

And so Alice would have sat dusty, perjured, and categorized in my mind as nothing more than yet another aesthetically stimulating, enjoyable spectacle.  Bang. boom.  Yet, wonder of wonders, it’s stayed standing toward the front of my mind and is proving to be downright meditatable!  comtemplatable!  scrutinizable!  And I have.  Here’s what’s come of it.

There are two explicitly stated and subsequently much-talked-about themes running through the flick: ‘individuality’s triumph over inhibiting social mores’ and ‘the interaction between free will and fate.’  These, however, were much too explicitly stated for me to be much interested in them.  In fact, I think the statements within the film manage to pretty much exhaust the conversation one could have about them.  Its ideas about them are simple, and they are stated.  You may tussle with them if you like, but the movie will quickly leave you floundering around on your own; it doesn’t develop its assertions enough to sustain an earnest and questioning engagement of them.

No, I’ve had fun with two very other (non-exhaustive) topics: ‘what heroism looks like’ and ‘what the hey-nonny-nonny is going on with those queens.’  I like the second one better, so I’ll save it for last.


Alice is, indisputably, the hero of the movie.  (Allow me to assume that ‘hero’ has become sufficiently gender-neutral.) (Has it?  You know, like ‘actor?’) (And when I placed that quotation mark after that question mark, did I place that quotation mark well?)  She has all the marks of even the most macho of them, right down to her swaggering steps down a staircase with a dragon-slaying sword.  Not to mention a three-story dive to divest Jabberwock of its noggin.  She’s the k(ween?)ingpin of her war effort’s effort.

So what makes her a hero?  From what I can tell, two things: simple friendliness and gumption.  She is never really, I don’t think, fighting for (W)Underland and the White Queen.  Rather, she is always only fighting to help the people who happened to be friendly (in a save-your-life sort of way) to her when she first showed up, and to hurt the people they’re against.  Case and point: when the Hatter tosses her across the river with instructions to get to the White Queen, sacrificing himself to help her complete his cause, she doesn’t give a hoot for his injunctions, and instead rushes off to the Red Queen’s castle to rescue him without reference to his plans for her life.  When she finally does undertake her task, it’s because of her care for the Hatter and not because of her commitment to the cause.

Also, she’s inventive, she can lie on her feet, and she wins.  She never gives up on her friends.  Therefore, she is a hero.

But let me reiterate the main point: She’s not doing what she’s doing for a cause.  She’s doing it for individuals. This unnerves me.  When your heroes are defined by their friends and not by their beliefs, you’ve got the makings for feuds, gangs, sects, warring clans, and all those other lovely things I’d rather not reinstate as major social forces.  There is no question whether the White Queen is the right Queen, and I doubt whether that’s a conversation Alice could have had with any of the hooligans fighting against Red.  Nor is there any question whether the methods by which she attains her ends are alright.  She both lies and cheats to win.  No, it’s enough for her and everyone that the Red Queen is the wrong Queen, and that the Red Queen makes us hurt and feel bad.  (And die.)

Back to cheating.  Let’s notice that the Red Queen is right: in a match between two champions to decide the outcome of a war, the White Queen’s team, via the Hatter, cheats by stabbing the Jabberwocky right when it was about to crush Alice.  Is it ok to break the rules of engagement to win?  Yes, because the Hatter was doing it to defend his friend, who was doing it to defend her friend, who was him.  Um.

Final point: when she comes into her own and has by means of her heroism passed through liminality to womanhood? adulthood? self-esteem? it’s shown as follows. She strides around making confident assertions to every member of her former society, most of which assertions are distasteful to those members.  She has become a Genius.  A Goddess.  A Prophetess who sees through the swamp of human convention to the cold, shining realities of Self-Fulfillment, Biting Honesty, and Extravagant Commercial Risks.  Of course, she knew them all along, because she is not one to wear corsets because she thinks that they are uncomfortable and people who don’t wear corsets because they don’t wanna are particularly well poised to perceive social inadequacies.  Being outside it, they get a more objective view of it, see?  No, I don’t.  Sorry.

‘…Hey-Nonny-Nonny… Queens’

It’s very open for debate whether the White Queen is the right Queen.

Let’s go over the basics: Red Queen: massive cerebral cavity, tyrannical selfishness, and gaudy/grotesque aesthetic sensibilities.  White Queen: goopy big-hearted floatiness, sappy aspirations toward everyone else’s happiness, and delicate/Disney princess/minimalist aesthetic sensibilities.  Summary: The Red Queen is a calculating, heartless tyrant, more head and iron fist than heart.  The White Queen is a benevolent, compassionate, follow-your-heart, sadly deposed monarch-in-exile.  Summary of summary: Red Queen: HEAD, POWER White Queen: Heart, Victim. Got it?  Easy, right?

Too easy.

The White Queen, with her supposedly huge heart, is a younger (whence her claim to the throne?), scientific witch, whose “vows” keep her from harming any living creature, though she obviously doesn’t mind benefiting from others‘ harming them (how else should she have gotten ahold of all the ingredients required for her potions?). Psychological harm is another thing apparently not excluded by her vows.  How else could she have so obviously enjoyed shackling her sister to a man who had merely been using her?  And what sort of “vows” are they anyway?  I couldn’t help but think they were the terms of a contract that allowed her access to the sort of occult mysteries required for her…er…art.  Finally, and intriguingly, her court looks and acts uncannily like the stringent, all-too-happy (post-Enlightenment rationalist humanist) society that Alice is so desperate to buck back at home.

The Red Queen meanwhile, with her seemingly meaningfully huge head, is older (easy to see her claim to the throne) more emotional, and is tyrannical internally and externally.  She rules by means of monsters and the Knave, but perhaps it’s just because (speculation) her throne was usurped by a more conniving, intellectually capable, sold-out younger sister.  This isn’t an absurd idea; the White Queen won her crown back by (let’s remember) cheating.  So let’s say the White Queen politely usurped the throne originally.  Red then won it back by force, which is unpopular, and she didn’t shake the unpopularity. Subsequently, she became corrupted by sychophants and gave herself over to pleasure.  That was (obviously) a bad call.  But it’s a comprehensible one for someone who says a total of no intelligent things throughout the course of the film.  What if she had been better educated, or surrounded by good people instead of suck-ups?  What if she had fallen in love with a man who was good, who didn’t seek absolute power?

So now the White Queen seems deceptive and controlling, while the Red Queen becomes a victim of her own passions.  It’s a switch.  Summary in parallel to the summary of the summary: Red Queen: HEART, VICTIM White Queen: Head, Power.

Yes, I would rather be a subject of the White Queen than the Red Queen.  Things would be prettier and I’d have a better chance of staying alive.  But that’s not at all because the White Queen seems good.  She’s creepy and disturbing.  And nice.  The Red Queen could perhaps be improved by education, if she would be educated.  The White Queen, on the other hand would, if she was ever my antagonist, prove to be intellectually inflexible and ice-cold while being emotionally manipulative (see the debate prior to the battle of the champions and the implied history between the sisters).  So long as her subjects are merely half-mad hedonists, however, everything should be alright.  Ish.

To sum it all up…

Underland simply looks like it’s in a lose-lose situation, and that means that the story isn’t about Underland’s flourishing at all.  It may be about Underland’s (debatably legal) salvation, but it’s not about its flourishing.  Actually, between the two thematic bits I’ve discussed here, it looks much more like it’s about the triumph and centrality and solidity and theophany of the individual over and against social constructs, those hopelessly murky and morally/intellectually ambiguous things.  This is unfortunate, predictable, and etc.  But it’s a good enough movie with a subtle enough presentation of the point that I found myself writing 1600 words afterward, so it would be absurd of me to withhold a recommendation of it based on the grounds of my antagonism.  Ergo, go see it.  I’ll likely watch it again.  That is all.